Nick Lake's Truth
The There Will Be Lies writing competition was a huge success to celebrate the publishing of Nick Lake's book. We've also run a design competition which closes in just a few weeks. Nick is an editor as well as a brilliant novelist which is why we thought he was the perfect candidate to answer any questions you had for him.
Although there wasn't time to answer all of the brilliant questions we got, Nick has shared his wisdom for a few of them here:
What do you do when you start a story, and you're in love with it, but after a week or two, you're totally sick of it, and just want to get rid of it?
I sense there’s a reason for this question. Is this something that happens to you? It’s a tough one. I think there are probably two possible things going on here. First, there really are ideas that just aren’t right – or that aren’t the right idea for that particular writer at that particular time – and there’s no shame in realizing that and giving up on a project. I have several openings of books on old USB sticks that turned out not to work. (And sometimes the only way to find that out is to try). On the other hand, it can also be genuinely hard to maintain momentum and excitement when writing a book that is working. (Books are long. Books are very hard to write). The best advice, when energy levels are flagging, is probably something one of my authors told me years ago (I’m also an editor): don’t think about the book itself. Think about each chapter, and try to make each chapter as entertaining (or scary or moving or what have you) as you can. Sooner or later those chapters will add up to a book.
The difficult thing of course is telling which is which – is it an idea that is simply not going to click for you, as a writer, or is the book essentially fine and you are just finding writing 50,000 or more of a novel incredibly tiring, frustrating and daunting? Sadly I can’t help you there – learning to tell the difference is, I think, probably something that all writers go through.
How do you overcome writers block?
I’ve never been quite sure what people mean by writer’s block. Does it refer to when you don’t have a concept for a book? For when you’ve started writing and you hit a wall? For when you have a concept but for some reason can’t start writing? I don’t know. But each probably has different solutions (and mileage will vary depending on your personality anyway; everyone is different). Anyway, taking those in order:
Don’t have an idea? Then tune in to the world. I mean: pay attention to the news, to people around you, to dogs, to 19th century lampposts next to village greens, to light shining through a stained glass window, to bright blue doors, to crows flying in a pale metal sky (these are all just things I can see right now). If you open the doors inside you then an idea will come along sooner or later.
Hit a wall? Hmm. I don’t really know. People do different things. I know some authors who write their books in a non-linear way: writing the scenes that excite them and then filling in the boring mortar in between. I don’t personally do that. Me I think I go more for just powering through even when I’m feeling uninspired. You can always go back and revise anyway. Or, I don’t know, go for a walk or something. Unless you have a publishing contract with a deadline no one needs you to finish the story by a certain date. Put it aside. Travel. Fall in love. There’s no rush.
You have an idea but can’t start? My experience, both as an author and as an editor, is that this is because – even if the story seems complete in your head – there is something you haven’t solved or worked out yet, and your subconscious knows it. Examine the story from every possible angle, or better yet just don’t think about it at all – eventually you will be walking along and some gear will crunch in your head and you’ll go, “Oh! He has a sister. That’s why I couldn’t write it, because I hadn’t realized that.” And it’s the key to the whole thing and suddenly it flows out.
3. Niharika Sarma
In your book, you've written from the perspective of a teenage girl. How did you prepare for writing in the perspective so different from your own?
How did I prepare for writing from a different perspective… Well, in my previous book, Hostage Three, I also wrote from a female perspective. And I was lucky to have two early female readers who gave some interesting insights. That’s part of it. Another part is that I’m not sure how much I believe in really fundamental differences between genders – or races, or whatever. It’s been said that sex is biological and gender is sociological – there are tons of psychological experiments that reveal how powerfully parents and the like push their children into certain gender roles. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t therefore real differences in the kinds of activities, preferences and interests that boys and girls get funneled into. But deep down, in terms of our feelings and our desires and our fears, I think we’re the same. Which is a long way of saying: I don’t think our hearts are different and so in that sense it’s easy to write as a girl or a boy, because we’re all the same underneath. Sociology does come into it of course and that’s where having early readers helps, as well as, I guess, just observing the world and trying to put yourself into other people’s heads and generally trying to develop your sense of empathy and ability to try to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. Half of being a writer is probably building that muscle of empathy.
The final part of the answer is: I don’t do anything. I just wait for the voice to come and then I write the story that it tells me. This is both absolutely true and also something I always hesitate about saying because it makes me sound… not quite right in the head. But it’s still true. Shelby is just there, in my head. I couldn’t tell you why she’s a girl anymore than I can tell you where the story comes from. I don’t make these things up. I know that sounds ridiculous, they’re fiction, but that’s what I feel. They come from somewhere.
4. Mercury Chap
How fun is it to be a professional writer? What are your good and bad experiences as a writer?
Fun… That’s an interesting question. The first thing to say is that I find virtually no part of writing fun. I hate the feeling of having the voice in my head, wanting its story told, and that desperate urge to get it out and onto the paper. I hate the physical act of writing it – it’s too slow, and I just want to speed up time so I can type a thousand words a minute and just get it done and out of my mind. I hate revising (oh god I hate revising). There is one moment of joy which is when the book is done and finished and I can relax for a bit. Then of course it has to go out into the world and it’s terrifying and awful and you think, “why am I doing this to myself? What if everyone hates it?”
Other than that though… I think the most fun thing is meeting readers, whether it’s in schools or at bookstores or through questions like this, and just getting to talk to young people who are passionate about books and stories. That’s incredibly rewarding.
5. Grace Nebel
Do you have any words of wisdom for the young authors on Movellas? Any tips on writing and editing?
Oh so much. Though more as Editor Nick than Author Nick because Author Nick doesn’t really feel qualified to give advice; half the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But from Editor Nick: first of all, don’t listen to anyone’s advice on writing and editing, because each writer is individual and will come to what they do by a different route. But that said: read as much as you can, watch as many films as you can, watch as much TV as you can. Consume narrative. Absorb storytelling techniques from as many sources as possible. And don’t let your reading get pigeon holed – don’t become one of those people who say, “oh, I usually read proper books but this Stephen King can really write can’t he?” YES. HE CAN. Don’t be a snob. Recognise that skill and cleverness are different things. Don’t only read fantasy – a lot of it is crap – and don’t only read literary fiction – a lot of it is crap. There are many kinds of good writing. Pay attention to what good thriller writers do with pacing. Pay attention to what good ‘literary’ writers do with emotion and psychology.
Lately there have been a couple of inter-related things I’ve been thinking about too:
I don’t like it when people tweet their word count for the day as if it means something. Here’s the thing: wordcounts are not writing. Wordcounts are typing. Here are some things that are writing: looking at stuff; meditating; exploring; listening to music; being dumped; gazing out of train windows; going into old churches; sleeping. I don’t like this idea of producing a set number of words a day, though I know it’s one that certain authors have propagated (see: not listening to anyone’s advice.) You could not write anything for 10 years and accumulate a load of experiences that lead to you writing a great novel. There are different kinds of people and different kinds of writer. Yes there are those who write 500 words a day, and there’s a whole creation myth that you still get a lot, especially in Kids/YA author biographies, of the author who wrote their first novel at age 8 or whatever. But there are also writers like Michael Morpurgo, who has sold 35 million books, won many prizes, and wrote the novel on which the most phenomenal stage success of this century was based – and who didn’t write anything until quite late in life. I guess what I’m saying is: you might be one of these people with a journal in which you write a thousand words a day. Great. Or you might not ever write anything but want to be a writer: and that’s great too. Don’t worry about it and don’t feel pressure to write every day if you don’t want to. Don’t worry about it if you don’t have any ideas either. Keep that desire in the back of your mind, and do some stuff. Immerse yourself in another culture. Meet people. See the world. Live.
Kind of a similar point, but when people talk about writing every day I think the implication tends to be that you should be practicing sentences and paragraphs. Nothing wrong with that, but most people – and this is something I really notice as an editor – tend to spend all their time on that and don’t tend to think about practicing story arcs. I would very highly recommend, if you do feel like buying a journal and writing in it every day (and if you don’t, as above, great) that instead of setting down text you try sometimes to set down the shape of the story you want to tell. Think about its structure. Try splitting it into three acts and work out what would go into each act. Also, what is the arc of the character? Maybe you have a list of that character’s favourite music and stuff. Fine. But now draw a graph of what the character is going to learn about themselves in the course of the story, showing the depths they’re going to sink into and the soaring peaks of triumph and self realization. And keep going. What are the themes? What’s it about? (Clue: it’s not about the protagonist.) What are the sub themes? Now try writing a one-page synopsis of the book. (It’s amazing how focusing that can be in terms of making you realize what belongs in the story, and what doesn’t.) In summary: Practice structure as well as sentences. A one page synopsis is a book, just in a different form – it’s an expression of an underlying grammatical structure beneath the pages of the finished novel, and learning that grammar is useful.
Being an editor and author, what do you particularly hate in books? Things that really annoy you or make you want to put the book down?On the other hand, what really grabs you?
I don’t know that I hate anything in books. There are things I can start to think of – like, I was going to say, I don’t like literary books that don’t bother at all to try to pull you through the story, that don’t make any attempt to create a compelling narrative. But actually, there are books that don’t necessarily have compelling narratives that are nevertheless incredibly beautiful. Some of my favourite novels, in fact, probably fit into that category. So it wouldn’t be true. I think I just… I don’t like books that don’t work. And I do like books that work. They can be in any genre, any style, any voice, they can be long or short – but they either work or they don’t. A book is a four-dimensional sculpture of time and space, with aromas and textures and weather, that exists in your head: it might be full of things you hate, annoying characters, spiders, total lack of suspense, but if it works, it works. And when it works it’s beautiful.
I can think of a LOT of books that in my opinion don’t work, including recent very highly acclaimed ones. But I’m not about to name them.
Since you write There Will be Lies from a female character how do you get that same personal connection and understanding when writing from the point of view of the opposite gender or a character very different from you?
I think this is probably the same question as Niharika’s, really, and I would reiterate that I don’t think there is any ‘opposite’ in gender, but more of a continuum. Since it’s come up again though I’m just going to give the honest answer: I don’t know. I really don’t. The voices that come are the ones that I write down. Once it was a boy from the slums of Haiti in In Darkness. The last three have been girls – Amy in Hostage Three, Shelby in There Will Be Lies, and Cassie in Whisper to Me, which is the book I’m writing at the moment. (It’s about a girl who starts to hear a voice that isn’t there, and a serial killer, and the whole book is a love letter to a boy whose heart she broke, too.) The next one, I think, is a boy, living in a very unique environment. But I don’t think, “I’m going to write a boy next”. It’s just what comes along.
Thanks to all of the questions submitted, we hope you enjoyed the answers.